What does it mean to do better?

I finally went back to church on Sunday! And it was warm and sunny today! Thanks be to God!

And then: what to write? We have a rather complicated report/assessment to fill out at the end of the month, which I rather tardily submitted today. I suppose that even deeply flawed information is better than no information at all, since even someone like me could pick up on really stunning successes and failures, but mostly, every month, I’m reminded of how ill-informed my judgement is concerning the question of whether a class is going moderately well and moderately poorly, and what the causes are for that. Indeed, I don’t know that it’s appropriate to even speak of “the causes” of why a class that’s going tolerably well isn’t going very well indeed. It’s not going very well because, given these teachers, this level of experience and ready-ness, these students, this material, this time frame, this level of mutual understanding, these temperatures, and so on, it was never going to go really well, because it didn’t have the necessary components in the right combinations for that. Whether it’s going well enough is not something I’m equipped to assess at all accurately. It could certainly be going much worse. Does that mean anything? Nothing much that’s worth meaning. How could things go better? With more interesting material, better organization, better timing, more experienced teachers, more willing pupils, more pressure at home, more support at work, better heating, more coat racks… who knows? In what way would it go better? I suppose in the way wherein those inexperienced in English would more speedily become proficient in using English with communicative accuracy. What would they then communicate? Hard to say — sometimes I can barely communicate with a number of native Arizonans, even from my own subculture.

What writers I respect have to say on this subject — that of assessment of generally fuzzy matters — is not immediately appealing. They would say, I think, that to the extent a person is unable to judge something at all accurately, it would be better for him to refrain from judgement, because misguided judgement is not neutral, but destructive. To the extent that I have no idea whether my presence here is helpful to either myself or the Georgians around me, to that same extent I should admit my ignorance and simply try to do the obviously worthwhile things in front of me, in agreement with conscience.

This is not appealing for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the lack of authorities who have got solid judgement, AKA “the blind leading the blind into a ditch.” I could guess whether my presence in the elementary classroom is helpful or neutral (I don’t think it’s hurting anything), but am not in a position to know, because the experience which would enable me to assess my effectiveness is available neither to me (who knows nothing about what the English programs were like here last year), nor my co-teachers (who have not taught elementary before), nor my administration (which has not been tracking progress and comparing it with other schools which do or do not have volunteers), so my best guess is simply that — a guess.

The thing about guessing and personal opinions is that they’re not ultimately very interesting. There are other things about them, to be sure, but the thing about them that’s most relevant to this blog is that they’re not very interesting. It’s not very interesting to reflect on my experience the past year and say “I think that, given the kind of people we are, the kind of students we have, the books we were teaching from, and all the other circumstances of this program, we’re doing about as well as might have been predicted, but no better. It’s nothing to get excited about, which is too bad, but it’s not nothing, either. This is rather dull, because where does one go from there? One can perhaps write a story, if that’s the sort of thing one is interested in, but one cannot draw any reasonable conclusions, because there’s nothing to draw them from. There’s no vision of how things could be — nothing to love and be excited about, nor anything to be repulsed and alarmed by.

So then what? Try to make things better? That assumes some hooks to attach one’s understanding of “better” to, which I don’t necessarily have. “Better” means, for me “better able to talk or read about something that’s actually interesting,” in a way that “it is a red car” is not interesting. It’s worth emphasizing that I do not and never would mean, when using “better” intuitively, mean “using a better method,” and would always mean “able to express a more interesting, deeper, more important and thoughtful idea or understanding of something else.” It would be “better” to be able to read Dr Seuss than English World, because Dr Seuss is a better writer, with more charming language and more interesting images. It would be better to be able to read Laura Ingalls than Dr Seuss, because it requires more maturity and sustained attention. It would be better to be able to read George MacDonald than Laura, because his stories contain more depth of beauty. And so on. Whatever one is able to read, it’s much better to find meaning in it than simply words. It would be better that a teacher and students have some sufficient way to communicate, by which the teacher can help the student to understand, and find out if he or she has understood.

Of course, we’re not there yet, and that’s fine, because my classes are still at Level 1 of language learning. But much of the reason for my ambivalence toward how well my classes are going is hinged upon this: if I were to assess that my classes were going “better,” what I would primarily mean by that would have nothing whatever to do with anything I have to assess in my report, and everything to do with someone who previously could only read English World Volume 1 being able to read And to Think that I saw it on Mulberry Street and appreciate it, or someone who previously could only read New Wave being able to read Little House on the Prairie and be able to follow what’s happening, and so much the better if someone who could previously only talk about shopping (which is outrageously overemphasized in some of our textbooks) could talk, haltingly it may be, but truly, about something interesting, like his grandmother’s childhood, or what he finds most charming about his best friend, or anything that deserves the interest of a human being. By “better” I manifestly do not mean the ability to gossip more effectively, or to use more multi-syllabic words just because one can, or to be able to fill in the blanks with utmost perfection.

In all honesty, I don’t have very good judgement in my current work primarily because our textbooks, curriculum guides, assessments, reports, and so on are not even heading in the direction intuition suggests as “better,” and no amount of extra tutoring time or extra words could possibly change that. Very possibly even reading and speaking on things that are really worth reading and speaking about wouldn’t necessarily change that, until such a time as it became obvious that something in what was said or read or written actually sank in and made contact in something that was important in the person. Georgian lessons, for me, are all empty noise and motion most of the time — and are only likely to become something else at the point where I could communicate something that is really worth hearing and knowing with someone else. Which is unlikely, and rather de-motivational as a student — because it’s not so much that there’s a rather long road from here to there, as that we’re on a different road altogether.


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